The Norwegian language has a difficult history which continues to affect the language's status in Norway today. Due to Norway's complex political history and former union with Denmark, the contemporary Norwegian language exists in two rival forms: Dano-Norwegian, also known as Bokmal or Riksmal, and New Norwegian, or Nynorsk.
Classification and Early History of the Norwegian Language
The Norwegian language is classified as part of the West Scandinavian branch of the North Germanic language family. The Scandinavian languages we know today, including Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, developed from the Old Norse language of the Vikings.
Based on a runic alphabet, the Old Norse language did not undergo the significant changes that resulted in the development of a modern Norwegian language until the 14th century. At that time, the Old Norse languages began to differentiate from one another.
It is believed that Norway was first organized as a unified area under King Harald Fairhair in 872. In the 11th century, Christianity came to Norway. Thanks to this development, the Latin alphabet also was brought to the region. The first Norwegian scripts containing Latin characters can be dated to the early 12th century.
Union with Denmark: From Old Norwegian to Dano-Norwegian
The union of Norway and Denmark in 1380 had a profound effect on the development of the Norwegian language. With its university, Copenhagen became the cultural and intellectual capital of Norway and Denmark, as well as the official capital of the union.
From the 16th to 19th centuries, standard Danish was the official language of Norway. The Danish language was adapted somewhat during this time, as it was modified to accommodate Norwegian pronunciation, resulting in Norwegian Bokmal, or Dano-Norwegian.
Dano-Norwegian finds its origins in the written Danish language which was developed from 1380 to 1814, during the union of Denmark and Norway. After Norway won its independence in 1814, a linguistic union between Norway and Denmark persisted. This union, however, was colored by both practical and political difficulties.
Post-Independence Linguistic Problems
Although linguistic connections between Norway and Denmark were maintained after Norway gained independence in 1814, a number of difficulties arose in the use of the Dano-Norwegian language which had been developed during the two countries' former union.
For one thing, in its spoken form, Dano-Norwegian was very different from Danish. While the elite classes had adopted a more standardized version of the language, lower classes had maintained the use of more Norwegian dialects, which brought difficulties to the education system.
Coupled with post-independence political considerations, this linguistic dichotomy between classes proved especially problematic. The ideals of national romanticism led many newly-independent Norwegians to demand a national standard language shared by all of Norway's inhabitants.
Introduction of a Standardized National Language: Norwegian Nynorsk
In 1853, a self-taught Norwegian linguist named Ivar Aasen personally addressed Norway's need for a national standard language. Combining western and central dialects, Aasen developed a standard Norwegian language which he called Landsmal. This is what we know today as Norwegian Nynorsk, or the New Norwegian language.
The New Norwegian language was based on the Old Norwegian traditions, and was meant to expel the Danish language from Norway. Aasen presented the New Norwegian language in a number of linguistic texts, including grammar books and dictionaries, as well as in a number of literary texts. His endeavors proved successful, and New Norwegian was recognized as the second official national language (in addition to Dano-Norwegian) in 1885.
An Alternative to Aasen's New Norwegian Language
Until the mid-19th century, a standard norm of spoken Norwegian based on Dano-Norwegian was maintained in newly independent Norway. It was not until the 1840s – over 15 years after Norwegian independence – that a policy of linguistic reform was introduced.
The linguist Knud Knudsen developed a spoken Norwegian language that would more closely parallel the written Dano-Norwegian language primarily used in the country at the time. Being less radical in nature, Knudsen's proposed reforms promised change without the significant linguistic disruption which Aasen's New Norwegian promised.
Dano-Norwegian vs. New Norwegian: The Role of Norwegian Literature
Most scholars agree that distinctly Norwegian literature can be identified only after Norway separated from Denmark in 1814, making the body of Norwegian language literature relatively young. Still, Norway's writers have produced an impressive body of work, including multiple Nobel Prize for Literature Laureates.
Knud Knudsen's less radical development of a modified Dano-Norwegian written form was largely supported by the Norwegian writers of the 19th century, and the enormous Norwegian literary movement of the late 19th century contributed greatly to Knudsen's success in disseminating the modified Dano-Norwegian language he had developed.
Still, Aasen's New Norwegian language has remained an active part of the country’s literary scene. Many Norwegian authors have made use of the New Norwegian language's earthy poetic quality, helping to maintain its significance in modern Norwegian culture.
Norwegian Language Dialects
It is generally agreed that the diversity of Norwegian dialects makes it impossible to determine a clear number of dialects. Grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation vary across different areas, and in some cases a dialect can be so unique as to be unintelligible to those Norwegian unfamiliar with it.
Although there have been trends toward regional classification and standardization of Norwegian dialects, many Norwegians prefer to maintain distinct local dialects.
The Norwegian Language Today
The Norwegian language is the official language of Norway, which has an estimated 4,644,457 inhabitants. A dichotomy remains between New Norwegian (Norwegian Nynorsk) and Dano-Norwegian (Norwegian Bokmal) to this day. Norway recognizes both Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmal as official languages, Norwegians are taught both Bokmal and Nynorsk in school, and the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) broadcasts in both languages.
Although both Bokmal and Nynorsk remain active today, only about 20 percent of Norway’s population uses Nynorsk as their primary written language. Bokmal is primarily used for written purposes, while the majority of spoken Norwegian language dialects maintain closer ties to Nynorsk.
Norwegian Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Bokmål, Bokmaal, Norwegian
Language Family: Indo-European, Germanic, North, East Scandinavian, Danish-Swedish, Danish-Bokmal
Official Language of: Norway
Spoken by Approximately 4,000,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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